Preached February 3, 2013
Text: Ezra 1:1-7, 3:10-13 & Haggai 1:1-9, 12-14
The Story, Ch. 19
It has been at least 40 years – some say nearly 70, depending on how you translate the numbers – since God’s people left the Promised Land and the Temple was burned to the ground.
Only the elders of the people remember those days; and even for them it is a distant memory. Their lives have moved on, but they remember the way it used to be. They remain a bit homesick for the land of their childhood.
Things are changing all around them, faster than they can keep up, it seems. Their captors – the Babylonians who had carried them into exile so many years ago – have been defeated. A new government is in place, one that promises change.
The change isn’t long in coming. Persia conquered Babylon, and within the first year of his reign, the Persian king Cyrus tells the Israelites that they can return to their homeland, to the place of their youth. He even promises his support in rebuilding the Temple!
Of course, not everyone wants to go home. Some of the Israelites – like Daniel, whom we read about last week – are perfectly content to stay where they are. They’ve lived their whole lives there, raised their families there, made a life for themselves. They would stay and live out their lives in those now-familiar places.
But some – some still longed for their homeland all those years later. And some were ready for a new beginning, a new adventure. Some wanted to preserve their heritage for the next generation. And some just felt God stirring up their spirit, though they couldn’t say exactly how or why.
So they gathered their families around them and began the journey to their homeland. As they traveled, they couldn’t help but remember the stories of their ancestors coming to this land for the first time – the way God freed them from their captors; the gifts they received as they left; the promise of a place to call home. There were reminders of their history and God’s faithfulness all around them.
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods.
The people arrived in Jerusalem – the town of their childhood, the home of their ancestors. They were overcome with emotion – joy; exhaustion; wonder; hope. They didn’t quite know what God was doing, bringing them back here to this place, but they wanted to be a part of it. They wanted to join God in restoring the past and building for the future.
How to be a part of God’s work? Well, the first thing they did was give – overcome with gratitude to God for bringing them to this place, the people responded by gathering with their families and bringing a freewill offering to the priests, to be used for rebuilding the house of God (Ezra 2:68-69).
And then, there it was time to settle in. They knew there was much work ahead of them. There were plans to make, materials to gather, jobs to assign. But first, they needed to set up camp and get some rest (Ezra 2:70).
After a few weeks went by, the people gathered in Jerusalem to begin their work. The first thing they did, then, was to worship in that place where generations of Israelites had worshipped God before them.
It was an emotional day – excitement for the future mingled with nostalgia for the past. Hope and fear intertwined. The air was thick with anticipation and uncertainty.
Jeshua – the High Priest – and Zerubbabel – the governor and a descendent of King David – led the people in the ceremonial laying of the foundation for the new Temple. The first stone was one pulled from the rubble of the old Temple, a symbolic connection between memories of the past and hope for the future.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the LORD with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,
“For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
Restoration had begun! Now it was time to get to work.
Any large task requires leaders to make decisions and set out vision and direction for the people. The Israelites chose the Levites for that task. They were a natural choice – the children and grandchildren of the priests who had served in the first Temple. It is interesting, though, that Ezra tells us that the Levites age 20 and over were chosen to lead (3:8). In the first Temple, a Levite had to be 30 years old before he could begin his Temple service. Now, the tasks of vision and decision-making are entrusted to the younger generation, the ones who will lead the people into the future. It is another sign that the times, they were a-changin’.
Those young leaders stepped up, and the work on the Temple progressed. It was not with some obstacles along the way, though. There was opposition from neighbors; arguments over permits and zoning; power-struggles with the borough council. (Or at least the ancient equivalent; see Ezra 4.)
Some of the workers were discouraged by the frequent setbacks; others just got distracted as time went by. Babies were born, houses were built, day-jobs demanded more of their time, the golf course or the lake house filled their weekends. Progress on the Temple slowed; it became something they worked on in their spare moments a few times a year, while the rest of life moved on.
One Bible scholar describes it this way: “Things aren’t as good as the people had hoped…and the people aren’t as good as God had hoped.”
But ultimately, restoration is still God’s work; God will not allow this “new thing” to be forgotten. So God speaks to the people through the prophet Haggai:
In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’S house. Then the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
Thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored, says the LORD. You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses.
Then Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, and Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God, and the words of the prophet Haggai, as the LORD their God had sent him; and the people feared the LORD. Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke to the people with the LORD’S message, saying, I am with you, says the LORD. And the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God.
~Haggai 1:1-9, 12-14
God is not done with us yet! God is doing a new thing, and as often as we get distracted, God continues to invite us into the work of restoration and renewal.
But now be strong, O Zerubbabel,’ declares the LORD. ‘Be strong, O Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the LORD, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear. The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.
We believe God is calling us to a new thing, a renewal, too…
We told you last week, church council voted to move forward with a second-site ministry in Moon…alongside our presence here in Coraopolis…
Some of you feel anchored here, in this place and this community…like Daniel and others who continued to worship God faithfully right where they were…
But it also seems that God is stirring some hearts to go out, to do something new and different…like the stirring of the spirit that led some Israelites back to Jerusalem to build a new Temple…
What will it look like? We don’t know, exactly. It will be connected to who we are as a congregation – like the first and the second Temples were connected by a shared foundation stone.
But it will also look different, new, shaped by a new generation of leaders – leaders who are young in years, like the 20-year-old Levites, and also leaders who are new to our community, who don’t have the long history that some of you do. Together, “old-timers” and new folks will plan and dream and see where God leads.
And then: How will we pay for it? We hope and pray that some of you will hear the vision and feel called by God to give a free-will offering, like the Israelites did, to provide for the future. We also have support of “outsiders” – people outside of our community who have promised funding, like the foreign king who offered gifts from the royal treasuries to support the work of rebuilding. In fact, the Annual Conference has pledged to match our fundraising goals…!
As we follow God together into a new place and unknown future, there will be a lot of questions. Excitement and fear will mix together. Memories of the past and hope for the future will mingle. Emotions will run high, like they did for the Israelites as they began the work of restoration.
There will be congregational meetings when you can ask questions and see details like timelines and budgets. There will be opportunities for prayer, and giving, and serving. There will be a lot of work to do – enough work for every single one of you!
And there will be, we know, reasons to be discouraged and distracted along the way too. That is part of doing something new. But we trust God will continue to raise up prophetic voices to speak to us in those times too.
For Israel, the building of God’s house in Jerusalem was a sign that the prophetic word of God remained true and reliable. It was a reminder of God’s past faithfulness and a reason to hope and trust in the future. We believe that this new vision that is emerging among us is a sign of God’s faithfulness to this congregation and community, too, and reason to hope and dream about our future as one church family bridging two communities.
Like the Israelites, we hear the words of the prophet Haggai as promise and call:
“Be strong, all you people…and [get to] work, for I am with you,” declares the Lord Almighty. “My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.” (Haggai 2:4-5)